Getting into over the top

BitDepth#994 for June 23, 2015

At TATT’s OTT Open Forum, panelists respond to a question from the floor. From left: TATT’s Kirk Sookram and Annie Baldeo, Digicel’s David Geary and Kieran Meskell and TSTT’s Christa Leith. Photo by Mark Lyndersay.
At TATT’s OTT Open Forum, panelists respond to a question from the floor. From left: TATT’s Kirk Sookram and Annie Baldeo, Digicel’s David Geary and Kieran Meskell and TSTT’s Christa Leith. Photo by Mark Lyndersay.

It proved to be one of the Telecommunications Authority’s more heated consultations, but for once, the fire wasn’t coming from the floor.

Gathered in one room were representatives of TATT, Digicel, TSTT and Columbus Communications to discuss the ticklish matter of what people do with their Internet connections.

Digicel, which has taken the lead in making hard moves on the issue of Over the Top (OTT) services by blocking, albeit briefly in T&T, third party Voice over IP (VOIP) software, spoke first on the matter, their General Counsel, David Geary reiterating the points the company has been making from the start (http://ow.ly/OB6eq).

Acknowledging that OTT services are generally positive, Geary lamented that the company was forced into competition with providers “that are not required to hold a concession and who are not subject to the same rules.”

“If a class of activity is regulated,” Geary argued, “then just because it is carried across the Internet does not make it immune from regulation.”

OTT services such as VOIP, Geary said, are in direct competition with the revenue streams of licensed companies but pay no taxes and provide no ancillary services, such as emergency calling, which TATT requires of its concessionaires.

They contribute nothing to the infrastructure that they use to deliver those services and exist outside of the legal frameworks of this country.

Those revenue declines are likely to be the largest issue on the agenda of any telecommunications company objecting to the presence of VOIP software on their networks.

Citing research on the subject, Geary noted that the drops will be significant. Estimates in global revenue drops for mobile operators estimate that voice and SMS income on incoming international calls will drop by 30 to 40 per cent while overall revenues look to decline by as much as 25 per cent.

In India, operators will lose 50 per cent of international call revenue.

Skype alone carries 34 per cent of all international voice calls.

It’s largely not a first world issue, because revenue from international calls makes up a much smaller part of the balance sheet in those countries. In Europe, Geary explained, that percentage of income is just five per cent.

Digicel, he said, had seen a 40 per cent drop in international calls over the last 18 months.

“It will not be possible for increases in data usage to make up that shortfall,” Geary said.

The statements from TSTT’s Christa Leith were more conciliatory, offering a hands off position on how customers used their network but declaring the company willing to seek collaborative arrangements with such providers.

The position of Columbus Communications, as articulated by David Cox, himself a former regulator, was more determinedly agnostic about the use that its users made of its networks and declared the TATT consultative document a “watershed in regional deliberations on the matter.”

“What is the role of network management policies?” asked Cox, who noted the need to manage traffic, since bandwidth is finite.

Cox was clear that Flow, Columbus’ customer facing ISP, would not engage in the blocking of OTT services (a TTCS discussion on blocking is here: http://ow.ly/OB6p6).

“VOIP and IPTV are legitimate technologies that are used by local telecommunications companies,” Christa Leith said, “but does the model of an OTT provider compromise the local competitive market?”

Since OTT services are usually disruptive to established services, it seems that such conflicts are inevitable.

It also remains to be seen what the position of Flow will be when the OTT services delivering cable television programming, already in use locally but still to spread into the mainstream, begin cutting into their customer base.

For now, the same region blocking which has led to decades of pirated cable television programming makes it uncomfortably difficult for the average user to simply deal directly with HBO or ESPN to deliver their content over an Apple TV or Roku set-top box, but there’s no guarantee such restrictions will remain in place forever or even for long.

Kim Mallalieu, a TATT director and UWI computing lecturer asked from the audience perspective, how the mechanics of such regulation and its enforcement would work.

Kieran Meskell, Head of Regulatory Affairs for Digicel T&T responded that, “Blocking is the default enforcement tool, if a provider using legacy connections doesn’t comply with regulation, TATT’s action would be to block their service.”

Mallalieu clearly wanted more nuance than that, but it wasn’t forthcoming.

In his presentation, Columbus’ David Cox spelled out the situation quite clearly: “If you can enforce, then you should do something, if you cannot enforce, that should be factored into your deliberations.”

Tamara Ragoonath of DirecTV pointed out quite sharply that TATT’s response to the piracy of international cable feeds had been glacial, and questioned how quickly the authority would move on this new “vexing matter.”

That brought TATT head Cris Seecharan to the podium to announce that at the authority’s last meeting, a zero-tolerance policy had been agreed on and all that remained was a sunset period before such signals would have to be terminated.

There seemed to be general agreement that there is need for more formal assessment of the actual presence and impact of OTT services, something that TATT hopes to address in its upcoming TATT Internet Usage Survey.

While many concerned voices were raised from the audience about limiting OTT services, one of the final clear voices on the matter was UWI lecturer Simon Fraser’s.

“Voice is dead, long live the data,” he told the panel.

“If you are a business that depends on voice, you are pushing against the wave. If you are a company selling data, it’s the best of times and you will thrive by getting people to use as much data as possible. It’s all over the top.”

“Are we going to regulate everything? Are we going to cut them off? Well, they are likely to say fine, you are just a rounding error in our business.”

“This is a much bigger matter than just VOIP. All our regulations, all our thinking has to change. Stop pushing against the wave. You’ll have more fun buying a surfboard.”

About Mark Lyndersay

Mark Lyndersay is a writer and photographer based in Trinidad and Tobago. He writes editorial leaders for Guardian Media Limited, for whom he has written more than 1,300 since 2001, feature writing and reviews and his column, BitDepth, which has examined personal technology issues continuously over the last 20 years. As a photographer, he divides his time between commercial assignments and annual report photography and personal projects like Local Lives, which examines the backstory of life and culture in Trinidad and Tobago.

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